Disaster relief package enacted

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State relief is on the way for folks like Nancy Benson. She and her husband have lived in Rushford for decades; she serves on the city council and owns a small beauty shop in town.

“On Saturday night, Aug. 18, they lost everything,” said Rep. Ken Tschumper (DFL-La Crescent). “The Rush Creek came out right next to their home, flooded their home. Nancy almost died when the basement caved in as it was flooding. Luckily, her husband pulled her out. Her beauty parlor business was completely flooded. They lost everything there. When they went to see FEMA about 10 days ago they were told, because they had their home paid for, they would get zero help from FEMA.”

Less than a month after heavy rains resulted in rushing floodwaters that created a path of destruction through parts of southeast Minnesota, state lawmakers approved a stream of money to help people like Benson rebuild what was damaged or washed away.

The $157.3 million law, sponsored by Tschumper and Sen. Sharon Erickson Ropes (DFL-Winona), includes state aid to seven counties that were designated federal disaster areas following the Aug. 18-19 storms.

Seven people were killed, nearly 1,500 homes were damaged and approximately 300 destroyed during the flooding. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the flooding has resulted in approximately $67 million in damage to private property and public infrastructure. However, Erickson Ropes said local officials have said that number is only a preliminary estimate.

Approved 130-0 by the House just after midnight Sept. 12, and 62-1 by the Senate less than an hour later, the legislation was signed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty in the wee hours of the morning. The law is effective Sept. 13, 2007.

“Providing relief to those communities, families and businesses suffering as a result of the flooding in southeast Minnesota is in the best tradition of Minnesota government acting in response to natural disasters,” Pawlenty said. “This package will work in conjunction with efforts already being coordinated by federal and local governments, as well as the private sector to ensure the quickest possible return to normalcy for residents in the impacted communities.”

SSHF1*/SSSF1 provides $72.3 million of state assistance from the General Fund and $56 million in general obligation bonding. It also includes $1 million from the petroleum tank cleanup fund.

The allocations will assist with homeowner and business clean up; the refurbishing or rebuilding of public infrastructure, including roads and bridges; school facilities cleanup, repair or replacement; increased student transportation costs; student enrollment changes; replacing state facilities and restoration of natural resources; and help with historic structure cleanup and repair.

“Together, our efforts will foster that cooperative spirit that makes us Minnesotans,” said Rep. Steve Drazkowski (R-Wabasha). “The citizens of southeast Minnesota are grateful for our collective action and support of this measure.”

The law includes:
• $51 million to replace roads and bridges;
• $45 million for employment and economic development purposes;
• $16 million in low-interest and forgivable loans to homeowners through the Economic Development and Housing Challenge Program administered by the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency;
• $4.2 million to repair and replace state facilities and restore natural resources in the area;
• $1 million in property tax abatements for flooded homes and businesses;
• $584,000 in education assistance to include school clean up and repair, offset enrollment changes and to assist with increased student transportation costs;
• $250,000 for historic site cleanup, repair and replacement costs; and
• $100,000 for the Department of Health to conduct indoor air quality investigations and sampling in public facilities and nonprofit organizations.

The employment and economic development money includes $35 million to local governments “for locally administered grants or loan programs for businesses and nonprofit organizations directly affected by the flood, including those that provide residential, health care, child care, social or other services on behalf of the Department of Human Services.”

By law, FEMA provides 75 percent of eligible costs associated with public infrastructure damage caused by a disaster. The state and local communities are responsible for the rest. Further, federal individual assistance is capped at $28,200.

“We’ve had dozens of bridges destroyed, miles and miles of roads that need repair,” Tschumper said. “The FEMA money coming in will roughly be about, we’re thinking, $40 to $50 million. That’ll be three-fourths of the cost of infrastructure repair.”

Said Erickson Ropes: “This is a huge disaster Ö and we need all the tools in the toolbox to rebuild southeast Minnesota.”

The law also provides $3.7 million for “flood and drought recovery assistance to affected agricultural producers,” $1 million to help Cook County and Grand Marais with costs associated with a fire in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness earlier this year, $200,000 in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 to Crookston for flood recovery and mitigation issues and $100,000 in fiscal years 2008 and 2009 to Browns Valley to assist in recovery from a March 14 flood. The last two were in the omnibus tax bill (HF2268*/SF1933/CH149) vetoed by Pawlenty in the regular session.

Further, the bill includes $2 million to provide a state match necessary to receive $53.2 million in federal grants and aid for the Interstate 35W bridge collapse. It also prohibits insurance companies from stating or implying to a policyholder that filing a claim related to the bridge collapse could result in non-renewal or cancellation of that policy or future premium increases.

Some lawmakers expressed concern that more wasn’t done for transportation funding during the one-day special session. A package (HF946*/SF1986/CH84) that included a number of tax increases, including a 7.5-cent gas tax rise, was vetoed by Pawlenty during the regular session.

Despite much discussion since the bridge collapse, the governor and legislative leaders have not been able to agree on a package that is suitable to both sides.

“We’re going to redouble our efforts to ensure that 2008 is not a year of missed opportunities,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein (DFL-Mpls), chairman of the House Transportation and Transit Policy Subcommittee.

“Every year we wait the need is going to grow greater,” said Sen. Steve Murphy (DFL-Red Wing), chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee.